Sparky electro-pop and dance were more dominant than folk at this year’s Bestival, but it’s a cheerful mish-mash where sensitive strumming acts are welcomed (as long as they’re not upset by a soft background thud of drum and bass, as King Creosote was). The Unthanks sang beautifully to a very appreciative crowd, accompanied by lots of strings; in tune with each other and the audience, they were disarmingly direct and self-assured, creating a lush, tranquil moment amongst the bright lights. Noah and the Whale packed out the Big Top to the point that FFS couldn’t squeeze in, and Lucy Rose was gentle and melodic on the bandstand, though she lacks the intensity of Laura Marling or First Aid Kit. Jose Gonzales-fronted Junip were perfect for Sunday afternoon, all soft folk-tinged psychedelica, made for hippy dancing (lift your hands in the air, loosen your hips, sway). If you haven’t heard this song yet, listen to it now.
We were disappointed to miss Daughter (clashing with Bjork) and Bella Union-signed Lanterns on the Lake, who are both well worth a listen. However, for us PJ Harvey was the unlikely folkstar of the festival. It’s testament to her long, ambitious career that she can move from loud, shouty rock (‘50 Foot Queenie’) to darkly pastoral, piano-led folk (‘White Chalk’). She’s been praised for Let England Shake to the point that there’s no need to add to the chorus, but it’s worth noting that it’s a true folk album, rooted in the landscape and history of England, inspired by the testimonies of real people, dominated by autoharp rather than guitar, and politically engaged in a way that harks back to folk acts of the sixties, however much Harvey refuses to call it a protest album. When she sang these songs she visibly stepped back for something bigger than herself, staying very still and making her voice clear but distant. ‘On Battleship Hill’ was extraordinarily beautiful and affecting, her voice not faltering even on the uncannily high notes, ‘The Glorious Land’ practically danced along in spite of its darkness, and ‘Written on the Forehead’ played well with the surreal festival crowd.
For older songs she stepped forward more, becoming playfully secretive and girlish in ‘Pocket Knife’. When she sang “I feel like I’m newly born/Even though I’m getting on,” it felt true. She also sang ‘C’mon Billy’ and ‘Big Exit’ accompanied by autoharp, and finally completed the set with a ground-shaking rendition of ‘Meet Ze Monsta’, a thrilling counterpoint to her quietest moments, ending on a scream.
FFS could have listened to PJ Harvey all night, but now a quick shout out for Kate Tempest. Kate Tempest writes slam poetry and rap, and is the frontwoman of Sound of Rum. No folk singing here, but she delivered a solo show in the middle of the woods so good that she was forced into doing three encores, spinning stories of London life full of passion, empathy and anger. Her personality – completely open and overwhelmed by the crowd – works wonders (and reminds us of Janis Joplin), but she also has true skill. Some of the material was so raw and vulnerable that it was unsettling – her final encore was ‘Patterns’, a 15-minute marathon telling the whole history of a friendship, the end of childhood innocence, and young love, full of the strain of growing up without giving up, loving and being let down. She finished looking exhausted. ‘Cannibal Kids’ – inspired by the loss of a friend, she stressed, not the London riots – was also a highlight. Small, scruffy, and endlessly soft-hearted, she made the audience tender and protective, filling the small clearing with warmth: “This one’s for all the hopeless romantics.”
Words: Becky Varley-Winter